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Reclaiming the Past



By Sarah Price Brown

aria Altmann is sitting at the kitchen table in her home in Cheviot Hills, Los Angeles, when the phone rings, again. This time, an Austrian journalist speaking in German requests a meeting. Maria flips through the pages of her calendar until she finds an empty slot and schedules yet another interview.

     “I don’t like being a celebrity,” says Maria, elegant at 90 years old, with soft brown curls and a sharp Austrian accent. “I was fine before.”

     Five miles away, Randol Schoenberg, Maria’s lawyer, is fielding phone calls from his office on Wilshire Boulevard when an assistant hands him a slip of paper.

     “Ah, CBS Early Show,” says Schoenberg, 39, his clear-blue eyes widening. “Finally, finally,” he says. “Finally, they’re getting on it!”

     Whether they like it or not, Altmann and Schoenberg have become heroes of late, victors in a drawn-out battle to reclaim what had once belonged to Altmann’s family but had been stolen by the Nazis during World War II: five Gustav Klimt paintings, including the famous, glittering gold portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, Maria’s aunt.

     The portrait depicts a woman with porcelain skin, black hair and red lips, wearing a dress decorated with kaleidoscopic designs. She stands with her hands clasped at her shoulder, before a background of glistening gold.Having been reproduced innumerable times in books and on college dorm-room posters, mugs and even jigsaw puzzles, the painting is one of the world’s most recognizable works of art. For 65 years, the portrait hung in the Austrian Gallery Belvedere. The government-owned museum claimed that Adele had left the painting, along with several other Klimts, to the gallery in her will.

     Altmann and her family believed something else entirely. They argued that Adele had simply requested that the paintings go to the museum in her will. She could not have given the artwork away, because she did not own it, they said. The paintings belonged to Adele’s husband, Ferdinand.

     While Ferdinand initially expressed his intention to comply with his wife’s wishes, once the Nazis drove him from his country and liquidated his assets, he had no interest in donating the works to Austria, his heirs said. They further alleged that after the war, Austria forced them to relinquish their claims to the paintings before allowing them to remove other artwork from the country. From the outset, the family’s case looked hopeless. Austria denied any wrongdoing, and decades had passed since the Nazis had come and gone. This was history that no one cared to revisit.

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For 65 years, the portrait hung in the Austrian Gallery Belvedere.
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     Well, almost no one. For more than seven years, Schoenberg, grandson of the great Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, spearheaded an effort to recover the paintings. When the prestigious law firm for which he worked pulled out of the case, Schoenberg quit the firm and started his own. Opposed by both the Austrian and U.S. governments, Schoenberg hauled the case through the Austrian courts, the U.S. courts, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and finally, back to Austria for arbitration.

     In January of this year, an arbitration panel announced what few had expected, much less thought possible: Austria would return the five paintings, valued at up to $300 million, to the heirs of the Jewish man who had owned them.

     The way Schoenberg sees it, he did more than win a case; he recaptured a legacy.


 

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